Five of Lavey's winning team of 1954 - (L-R) 'Long' Tommy Doherty, 'Short' Tommy Doherty, Colm Mulholland (Captain), John Doherty, Brian Mulholland
Age is only a number. It's just after lunch last Friday afternoon and Colm Mulholland rolls back the years. Seated in his Lavey home, he surveys across the South Derry landscape.
There's not a cloud in the sky, as clear as Colm's voice coming down the phone.
“I can even pick out the Carn and Slaughtneil from here,” utters the 90 year-old.
It's the picturesque landscape his wife Mairead, nee O'Connell, spent a lot of her childhood in, at her Granny and Granda McKenna's in Tirkane and a panorama she can view every day.Mairead's late brother Sean lit up the attack in Derry's 1958 All-Ireland final team, while her future husband Colm was the defensive linchpin.
Over 50 years later, Colm is content. Football and golf, the sports he gave much of his life to, are etched consistently through the conversation.
“I feel quite good, but I wouldn't just like to be walking too far,” Colm offers.
Five years ago, he acquired a golf buggy – complete with flashing neon orange light - to help him navigate his way around the parish.
“I can still play a bit of golf, but this coronavirus has put an end to that.” he continues.
One afternoon, Fergal 'Shorty' McNally was lining out Lavey bottom pitch. Down the hill came Colm's buggy, before he got out and swung his driver. Ping. The ball went 80 yards up the pitch.
Colm would regularly call in at the pitch, to run his eye over whatever game or training session was going on.
Sport still figures highly in his thoughts.
The upcoming Lavey underage are 'quite good', he comments before inquisitively enquiring of another opinion on their quality. He listens intently, happy that the club's latest crop have potential.
Colm's father Daniel married Bellaghy woman Elizabeth Glackin and brought up a family of nine, in the townland of Ballymacpeake.
After getting married, Colm moved to Ballinascreen, where Mairead taught. He bought the Burnside Inn (later called Fullen's Bar) in the town, farmed nearby in Moneyneana and was getting his own contracting business off the ground.
He later returned to the outskirts of Gulladuff, renovated the house where they raised four children – Don, Sinead, Martin and Brid.
Colm won a scholarship to attend St Columb's in Derry. However, with a farm in the family, he didn't take up the offer.
“I went into the civil engineering business,” Colm outlines. “I had a lot of men employed at that time, I bought machines when I was young. It was the type of work that suited me very well. There was a lot of road jobs with heavy and light machinery, you had to have good machinery.”
After that, Colm got into horticulture and harvesting of peat in Gortnahey. His son Don remembers spending summers up there.
“I can remember me and a few of the McGurks going up to work there, it was around the time of the 1982 World Cup,” he recalls. “It was like our mid-season training.”
Aside from work, football became an important part of Colm's life. Lavey beat Newbridge in the 1937 senior final but had the title stripped due to allegations of someone watching a soccer game during the ban on foreign sports.
They went one better a year later with a 1-3 to 0-3 win over Pearses and the club's championship tradition was up and running. For Colm Mulholland, his football career began in his early teenage years.
“I started football when I was very young,” he begins. “The earliest memory I can think of was on a Lavey team, when someone didn't come and they were a man short.
“Someone said 'there's a young boy Mulholland there' and they filled out the team. I was about 16 and I played on the senior team.
“Fr Carragher was a big man in the GAA at the time, he came to my house and asked my father if I could to come and play a game.
“I remember the game was played in Lavey and it was a time when a lot of people were going to games on bicycles. My father had one of the first cars in Lavey parish.”
Lavey won championships in 1943 and 1944, but by the time Colm had become a regular senior, it was Newbridge who began to take root.
“I was a young player coming up through with Lavey and enjoying my football. We weren't winning all the time, but we were winning some things.
“I had myself all prepared and like a lot of others, I was physically very fit. You weren't worried about who you met.
“At that time, Newbridge had a great side and were ruling the roost, they were winning everything.”
Going into the 1950s, Colm, the 1947 Derry minor captain had established himself on the senior team and, locally, Lavey was beginning to flourish. In 1953, they opened their hall. The following year, Lavey won the league and championship double and just missed out on the treble when Newbridge beat them in the final of the McGlinchey Cup.
“I was the captain of the Lavey team that won the 1954 championship,” Colm says proudly.
With the late (short) Tommy Doherty at centre-back, Colm was deployed 'on the 40' by manager John L Fay, who was ahead of his time as a manager, having taken the Lavey team to watch Banagher's North Derry final win over Dungiven two weeks before the county decider.
The all-county final was played in Dungiven and they went into the chapel to light a candle before the game and it had the desired effect. On a windy day, they beat Banagher 1-10 to 1-5 to secure the club's fourth title.
Colm (front row with ball) captained Lavey to the 1954 senior championship
“It was a great life,” Colm said of his football career, having played with Lavey until 'around 1969'. “I must say that I enjoyed every bit of it. I played with some very good players in my time and came up against some very good players.”
When Lavey became a force at the end of the 1980s, his son Don was on the team. He played up front with Seamus Downey and Collie McGurk on the team that won the 1991 All-Ireland.
“That was a very proud moment, there is no doubt about that,” Colm utters.
Don can remember the fitting moment when he was reunited with his father after their win over Salthill.
“Daddy and uncle Sean (O'Connell) were there on the pitch and I can remember their joy,” he outlines. “It was like the feeling of 'at last we've won something in Croke Park' and something significant and a monkey off the back.”
The irony was the that great friends from their Lavey and Derry days Colm and 'Short' Tommy's sons – Don and Damian – played in Lavey's finest hour.
It was the missing link, giving Derry the extra belief that Sam Maguire was in their grasp. Colm agrees.
“It was a fantastic...and Henry Downey was a great player,” he endorsed of the man following in his own footsteps.
“Lavey were always to the fore, with players on Derry teams,” added Colm, who was one of the standard bearers.
When Derry won the first NFL title in 1947, John L Fay had moved to county management and while Colm was 'too young' to play, he remembers that era clearly.
Six points from captain Pat Keenan and a goal from Frankie Niblock, who lost three teeth in an earlier challenge, was enough to see off Clare.
“That (win) was before my time. There were some of the greatest names to play Gaelic football on that team.”
Three years later, Colm had broken into the county junior side that lost an All-Ireland final to Mayo. He lined out at midfield with Mickey McNaught, who was on the league winning team and Jim McKeever was listed at wing-forward. Tommy Doherty was stationed at full-back, in front of goalkeeper Charlie Moran.
“I always remember them saying about Daddy being able to use both feet,” Don points out. “That's why he played in so many different positions.”
The junior team was for players who had not played in the senior championship during the season or the previous year.
“Lesser teams have appeared in All-Ireland senior semi-finals since,” read a line from the 1984 Derry centenary book, highlighting the strength of the 1950 junior team.
For Colm Mulholland, he just took all in his stride.
“You just played the game and you didn't worry who you were playing against. You worried if you lost and if you won it, you enjoyed it and that was the kind of life young people enjoyed.”
When Derry lost their first Ulster final in 1955, Colm was listed at corner-forward. They lost 0-11 to 0-9 to Cavan and the final to Tyrone two years later, but were no longer looked on as the 'soft touch' in Ulster.
“At that stage we all had great experience of county football. We had not won anything of great importance, but along came victory,” he said, referring to their 1958 Ulster title and a first for the county.
Early in the season, Colm was on the Derry team to play at the Wembley tournament before an attendance of 56,000 against Galway.
Derry won both the Dr McKenna and Dr Lagan cups that season. In the championship, they were three-point winners against Antrim. After defeating Cavan in the semi-final, they were 1-11 to 2-4 winners against Down in the Ulster final.
It took Derry back to Croke Park and a clash with a Kerry team who boasted greats such as Mick O'Dwyer and Mick O'Connell.
“That was a very big thing,” Colm states. “I remember it was a wet day and that was a much talked about game.”
In difficult conditions, the Kingdom led 1-2 to 0-1, but by half-time it was a different story and Derry were two points ahead.
The Oakleafers went into a four point lead before Kerry grabbed a second goal to leave them holding on to win narrowly, 2-6 to 2-5.
“Beating Kerry in Croke Park was some achievement, there was over 40,000 people there. You were treated like royalty when you played on that Derry team and people would've kissed the ground you walked on.”
Colm (pictured third from the left on the middle row) at a Derry training camp at the airfield in Newbridge. His daughter Brid had it blown up and original hangs on the kitchen wall at home
The final was a different story. Dublin led 0-5 to 0-1 at one point in the first half and after Derry found their feet, they trailed by four at half-time.
A goal from Owen Gribbin levelled the game at 1-6 to 0-9, but the Dubs found the net with a Des Ferguson goal in the next attack, putting them on their way to a 2-12 to 1-9 victory.
“We should've won that All-Ireland,” Colm states.
As the years have passed, several Derry supporters have felt aggrieved at not getting fair play. On an occasion, Don went to Dublin for a weekend. A conversation with a Dub over breakfast traversed towards football and eventually of his father playing in the 1958 final.
“I remember a Dublin man chipping in telling me 'we robbed you that day' and that the referee (Cavan's Simon Deignan) was an auctioneer in Dublin and he 'gave us everything' that day...that was a Dublin man saying that. Anyone I have talked to and is old enough to remember, would say the same.”
For Colm, when speaking of the final, there is a frustrated tone, but he just wants to forget about it.
“It was a good team we had, but we don't want to hear about it again, that's how bad we all took it. I am just drawing a line under it.”
He played for another 'three or four years' before calling time on his Derry career, one he enjoyed immensely. It included the 1959 league final defeat to Kerry, a game Colm excelled in.
“I played football for Lavey and Derry for at least 20 years. I played for a long time and then golf took over after the football.”
“I just loved it football and the people you would meet, then you went down South and they knew you played Gaelic football, there was always great chat.”
Colm also had a prolonged spell in Philadelphia where he stayed with his uncle Dermot Glackin, a relation on his mother's side.
He also had his fare paid to travel to play football in New York's Gaelic Park. While in the 'Big Apple' he got approached about playing in San Francisco and drove the return journey of nearly 6,000 miles along the famed Route 66.
“I was in America a few times. I was well looked after and it was a very interesting time,” he adds.
In later life, in 1993, he crossed the Atlantic with his wife Mairead on San Francisco, where he also played golf.
He would go on to captain Moyola Park in 1999, but it was far from his first impact on the club.
Colm in his Moyola captain's jacket
In the early 1960s, there was an attempt to bring golf to the South Derry area, but it wasn't until 1975 that Lord Moyola made an approach about about constructing a course on the Shanemullagh Estate in Castledawson.
On the first committee formed was Colm Mulholland who was contractor for the new course, putting his civil engineering work to good use. By the spring of 1977, the front nine was complete before work moved to completing the rest of the course.
“I built the course – the greens and the tees,” outlines Mulholland. Being at the coalface of making the dream into a reality is a source of pride for him. Moyola was his arena and there was even a hole called after him – Colm's dillemna.
Earlier in the day, before our telephone call, Colm amassed all his golfing trophies. It amounted to '23 or 24' from a career he thoroughly enjoyed. He also loves to tell of his part in a fourball that lost just twice over a 12 year period.
“I enjoyed the golf and I played it in America and played a good bit in San Francisco. Later on in life, I had more success in golf than I had on the football field.”
“You could write books galore about the acquaintances with people in the world of sport. I have played golf in 27 of the 32 counties, it was great to meet friends through it and the football. Sport is something else.”
The former Derry minor and Lavey senior winning captain is now an honarary club president. He is also an honarary member of Moyola Golf Club – titles not just handed out to anyone. They are earned through years of service.
When the lock-down subsides, Colm will be back swinging the clubs again. You can't keep a good man down.
- The foundations for Derry's GAA success. More...
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